National Prohibition of Alcohol in the U.S.
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Prohibition of alcohol existed in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933. The story of how Prohibition came to be, what it was really like, and how it effects American life even today is a story of unusual ideas, fascinating characters, surprising events, and unexpected outcomes.
The Early Years
As the Puritans loaded provisions onto the Mayflower before casting off for the New World, they brought on board more beer than water (Royce, 1981, p. 38). 1 This reflected their traditional drinking beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors-they saw alcohol as a natural and normal part of life. Their religious tradition taught them that alcohol was created by God and inherently good. Jesus had used wine and approved of its moderate consumption. 2 Their experience showed them that it was safer to drink alcohol than the typically polluted water. Alcohol was also an effective analgesic, provided energy necessary for hard work, and generally enhanced the quality of life. Alcohol was also thought to serve as a social lubricant, provide entertainment, facilitate relaxation, contribute to the enjoyment of food, and provide pharmacological pleasure.
For hundreds of years their English ancestors had enjoyed beer and ale. Both in England and in the New World, people of both sexes and all ages typically drank beer with their meals. Because importing a continuing supply of beer was expensive, the early settlers brewed their own. However, it was difficult to make the beer they were accustomed to because wild yeasts caused problems in fermentation and resulted in a bitter, unappetizing brew (Rorabaugh, 1993, p. 2135).
But these early adventurers did not give up. While wild hops grew in New England, hop seeds were ordered from England in order to cultivate an adequate supply for traditional beer. In the meantime, the colonists improvised a beer made from red and black spruce twigs boiled in water, as well as a ginger beer. A poem from the 1630s reflected their determination and ingenuity:
If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips.
(Lender and Martin, 1982, p. 5)
As intricacies of brewing in the New World were mastered, beers became widely available and "many farmers made their own with the help of a malster who malted their barley, or more often, corn" (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 9). A brewery was one of Harvard College's first construction projects so that a steady supply of beer could be served in the student dining halls (Fumas, 1965, p. 20), and Connecticut required each town to ensure that a place could be made available for the purchase of beer and ale (Krout, 1925, p. 7).
Beer was designated X, XX, or XXX according to its alcohol content. The weakest and most commonly available beer was made by soaking grain in water. But this "small beer" spoiled quickly because of its low alcohol content and had to be consumed quickly. Brewing beer was the homemaker's responsibility and was done once or twice a week. "Ships beers" were stronger and also readily available. But the strongest beer, brewed with malt and extra sugar, was expensive and uncommon. (Rorabaugh, 1993, p. 2135; Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 9).
The colonists also learned to make a wide variety of wine from fruits, including strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants. They made wines from numerous vegetables, including carrots, tomatoes, onions, beets, celery, squash, corn silk, dandelions, and goldenrod. They additionally made wine from such products as flowers, herbs, and even oak leaves (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 9). Early on, French vine-growers were brought to the New World to teach settlers how to cultivate grapes (Krout, 1925, p. 32).
Cider had been popular in England but apples were not native to New England. The first orchard, grown from English seed, was planted promptly, and over time apples became abundant in the colonies. Apple juice was typically fermented in barrels over the winter (Schlaadt, 1992, pp. 5, 8). Sometimes honey or cane sugar was added, increasing the alcohol content and creating natural carbonation-"apple champagne" was a special treat. "Cider was served to every member of the family at breakfast, dinner, and supper. Cider was consumed in the fields between meals, and was a regular staple at all the communal social functions" (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 9).
Colonists adhered to the traditional belief that distilled spirits were aqua vitae, or water of life (Fumas, 1965, p. 18). However, rum was not commonly available until after 1650, when it was imported from the Caribbean. The cost of rum dropped after the colonists began importing molasses and cane sugar directly and distilled their own. By 1657, a rum distillery was operating in Boston. It was highly successful and within a generation the production of rum became colonial New England's largest and most prosperous industry (Roueche, 1963, p. 178).
In the profitable "Triangle Trade," rum was traded for West African slaves, who were then traded to the West Indians for more molasses to be made into more rum. This three point trading arrangement became a very important part of colonial commercial life and prosperity (Schlaadt, 1992, pp. 8-9). Almost every important town from Massachusetts to the Carolinas had a rum distillery to meet the local demand, which had increased dramatically. Rum was often enjoyed in mixed drinks, including flip. This was a popular winter beverage made of rum and beer sweetened with sugar and warmed by plunging a red-hot fireplace poker into the serving mug (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 10).
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